Mercy In Place

My “currently reading” pile usually, if not always, consists of some work of theological or devotional writing. At the moment, I’m working through Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, the first book in his five volume series on spiritual theology. I came across this bit of insight as I was reading it this morning before work:

One of the seductions that bedevils Christian formation is the construction of utopias, ideal places where we can live totally and without inhibition or interference the good and blessed and righteous life. The imagining and then attempted construction of such utopias is an old habit of our kind. Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches. It never comes to anything but grief. Utopia is, literally, “no-place.” But we can live our lives only in actual place, not in an imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned place.

What I find most poignant about the foregoing passage is how Peterson points out the assumption that our environment is the source of problems; we’re prone to think of evil as external, rather than internal. But, as the Good Shepherd himself notes, it’s the things from the heart that defile a person (Matt. 15:16–20). As I’m trying to figure out the next steps to take in life, professionally, personally, artistically, etc., I tend to blame present circumstances for my irritability, apathy, and all-around piss-poor attitude toward myself and others. “If I made $ X.XX per hour, or worked for Y employer, or were accepted to Z graduate program, I would at least have an idea of where my life’s headed and would therefore be at peace.”

As Peterson says, trying to create such circumstances “never comes to anything but grief.” Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with trying to generate more income or establish a career plan, but there’s danger in assuming that that will result in a change of heart. In other words, I’ll still find something to bitch about regardless of salary or status.

The truly remarkable truth is that divine mercy does not meet us in idealized circumstances. God does not forgive hypothetical sin, but real sin — the kind that actually needs forgiving. A life under grace is lived “only in actual place.” Such a truth is my only hope if I want to extend the same grace to others.

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Originally published at on July 22, 2015.

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